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Cullen: Closing address to Labour Party Congress

13 April 2008

Speech Notes

Closing address to Labour Party Congress

Hon Dr Michael Cullen Speech to New Zealand Labour Party Congress, Town Hall, Wellington

This congress has been about organising to earn the right to lead a government for a fourth successive term.

Let us remind ourselves how big an ask that is. No-one has done this since 1969, and then it was in part an accident of circumstances. No Labour Government has done this since 1946 when nearly all of our candidates at this year’s election were not yet born.

We face a mood which I have likened to a game of beach cricket. The surveys tell us that some people think it’s only fair somebody else has a bat.

We face a media mood that tends to want some new excitement.

We face an opposition desperately hungry for power, enormously well-financed, and willing to make any promise, break any principle, to get into power.

It is a steep mountain we have to climb to win.

And we can, and will, and must do it. It helps to have easily the country’s best mountaineering politician as our leader. Helen Clark knows how to climb real and political mountains.

It helps to have a new and reinvigorated team with the best set of young candidates coming through we have seen in a generation.

It helps to have a record of achievement of which we are proud and which has more than delivered on our promises.

It helps to have stood for our country’s independence and integrity, to have helped where we can and should and to have stood aside when to do otherwise was wrong.

It helps to have the policies for the future, a vision for a nation which is united in its diversity, strong in helping the weak, proud in righting the wrong ways of the past, humble about the land we are so fortunate to have the duty of caring for, striving to improve our quality of life for all.

And it helps to have a tradition and values and principles which are grounded in our belief in our essential equality and in the right of all of us to the security to protect and nourish and the opportunity to succeed and flourish.

So how do we earn that right to lead a government for a fourth term? In four words it is competence, record, alternative, and future.

One of the great strengths of this Helen Clark led government has been both its discipline and its performance. We have been by any measure a highly competent government.

Of course there have been some rocky passages. 2007 bought more than its fair share. But the sign of a competent government is its ability to move beyond those episodes as we have done this year.

At all times the discipline of Cabinet and Caucus has held strong. We have remained united.

Our leadership has been superb. Helen is a significant international figure. People know the country is in safe hands, that any crisis will be met with firmness and clarity, not panic.

Our record is unmatched. We are proud that what we have done has been what Labour governments are there to do. We are a Labour government in the great traditions of the past.

Just look at what we have done!

Firstly, and above all, we have changed the assumptions about what level of employment we can expect. For four years now the level of unemployment has remained below four per cent.

And that has not been bought at the price of simply freezing people out of the labour market. Participation rates in the labour market continue to be sustained at record levels.

And for those expanding numbers of people in the labour market we’ve repealed the Employment Contracts Act; we’ve added a fourth week’s mandatory paid holiday; we’ve raised the minimum wage nine times; we’ve restored a proper state-owned accident compensation scheme and improved its coverage; we’ve introduced and then extended paid parental leave; and we’ve passed better health and safety legislation.

Everyone here today from provincial New Zealand is particularly well aware of what that has meant. Towns and cities which seemed to be in perpetual decline in the 1990’s are now spruced up, confident, and growing.

Indeed, New Zealand as a whole has enjoyed the longest period of economic expansion in the last sixty years. Annual average growth has been a full percentage point higher than the OECD average since 1999.

We have built the infrastructure to sustain that growth. We’ve seen the biggest road building programme in living memory. We’ve increased public transport spending by - 900 per cent - with particular and spectacular growth in usage in Auckland. And we are revitalising rail.

We have cut taxes on business and introduced research and development tax credits to encourage the private sector to catch up with developed world norms.

We have moved to mandate and support the necessary acceleration in investment in telecommunications infrastructure where again the private sector by itself has not proved adequate to the task.

We have massively invested in and refocused our education system – from 20 hours free early childhood education to new programmes for literacy and numeracy to the introduction of a whole new achievement based qualifications system in secondary schools to a complete revision of the funding model for tertiary education to drive greater quality and relevance.

We have taken the most dramatic moves in well over thirty years to increase our level of savings and to increase our ability to fund our own investment. On top of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund we have now built KiwiSaver, arguably the most successful initiative in voluntary savings anywhere in the world.

As of the latest date we have 542,338 KiwiSavers. And all of the naysayers on the right, the left and the centre have been proved wrong.

Mr Key said KiwiSaver would fail. It’s boomed. Some said it would only be for ageing wealthy white males. Wrong again. A majority of KiwiSavers are women. After the initial influx of older workers opting into KiwiSaver the great bulk of new enrolments are under 45 with getting on for 40 per cent under 35. And the income spread of KiwiSavers is becoming wider all the time with more and more Kiwis of modest means realising this is their best chance of a better standard of living in retirement.

The economic success we have enjoyed has enabled us to address core underlying social problems in a way we have not seen since at least the time of the Third Labour Government in the early 1970’s.

We’ve restored the level of New Zealand Superannuation. We’ve massively increased the incomes of many families in New Zealand with the Working for Families programme.

We’ve reintroduced income related state house rentals, reduced the cost of going to the doctor, reduced the cost of prescriptions, controlled tertiary fees, abolished interest on student loans from those staying in New Zealand, massively improved the rates rebates scheme, boosted elective surgery, and rolled out new programmes for primary care for children and young people.

Already this year we have seen major new initiatives. We have announced new spending of $446 million over four years to fully fund the work of non-government organisations delivering essential services in areas such as parenting programmes, mentoring at risk youth, family violence prevention, and victim support.

We’ve announced a $700 million Fast Forward fund to achieve a step shift in our investment in research and development to underpin expanding sustainable primary sector industries including higher value production.

And I can’t help noting that we have achieved a new momentum in Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations which has our opponents floundering for criticism.

We are on the verge of a historic deal to settle the Central North Island forest claims. We are well-advanced on a settlement of the Waikato river claims which will also lead to the restoration of the state of the river. We are close to final settlement of the Wellington Tenths Trust claims and are engaged in intensive negotiations around the rest of the Wellington area and the top of the South Island claims. We have heads of agreement on major foreshore and seabed claims while other such claims are progressing.

And all Mr Key can say about the Central North Island forest deal is to say it will come apart. Obviously he hopes it will.

Nothing better sums up his failure to grasp the challenge of his pretence of being a Prime Minister in waiting. If he were really then he would back those negotiations.

But Mr Key is a politician who is proving to be very much less than the sum of his parts.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that in example after example he throws his principles aside so he can tell people what he thinks they want to hear.

In his own words he sees his period as a child in a state house as “a great marketing ploy”. But then he said of the Hobsonville development that it would be “just a bunch of state houses”.

The fact is Mr Key is slippery on everything – from where he lives, which may not be that important – to what he believes, which very definitely is.

He says he is ambitious for his country but gives the impression that all the ambition is for him.

- A man who was a university student in 1981 but can’t remember his views on the Springbok tour

- A man who couldn’t remember supporting the war in Iraq but did

- A man who thought the war in Iraq was over

- A man who said to Gay NZ he had no problems with civil unions but was only too happy to explain to Investigate magazine why he voted against them

- A man who said there needed to be protection for people in the prostitution industry but voted against it

- A man who thought climate change was a hoax and now claims to have always been a true believer but is looking for any excuse to vote against doing anything about it

- A man who did say he would love to see wages drop and then organised the persecution of the journalist who dared to report it

- A man who couldn’t remember National’s policy on a deadline for Treaty settlements and then reaffirmed it

- A man who said a National government would delay tax cuts to 2010 then said he was flexible and then said 2009, again all in the space of a few days

- A man who supported a compromise on the Trans-Tasman Therapeutics Bill and then opposed it

- A man who said there would be no restrictions on tertiary fee increases and then said that was factually incorrect

- A man who said KiwiSaver was fundamentally flawed and then said “it has probably gonna be successful”.

- And a man who likes to proclaim his economic credentials on the basis of the kind of moneymaking that has brought us the credit crunch but whose coherence on matters economic can be summed up in the following quote:

“Um, I was, I was out there actually being a bit negative, or saying, saying, you know, look, I was a bit concerned about the, the economy, but I mean one of the things, and I often say this to business audiences particularly when I get up is that, look, I it’s very easy when you’re the leader of the opposition to, sort of, see shadows because, you know, quite honestly in weaker economic conditions, Governments often get booted out, and, um, so you’ve got to be careful you don’t get too negative on things when you’re an opposition politician, because you can, you can see bad things in, in a lot of things, and that may not always, you know, always be right, so, um…..”

A man, indeed, who sadly admitted the other day he has no personal views these days and is just the “voice piece, if you like… of the National Party”.

By his own admission then, a founder member of the hollow men’s club, a cipher.

And behind him aren’t just the merchant banks he has been so busy talking too so often over the recent months, those waiting in the wings to buy a piece of the action that we call our country, Aotearoa/New Zealand.

In fact, there is a growing realisation that behind Mr Key is a weird collection of has beens and never will bes. Dr Lockwood Smith believes the world is cooling, not warming. This is a result, no doubt, of the fact that he is the one politician who could never be accused of too much cover-up.

Now that Tony Ryall has lost the Hawkes Bay District Health Board he has no friends to play with; Katherine Rich has been replaced by Anne Tolley as education spokesperson. Mrs Tolley thinks internal assessment is carried out by doctors; Mr English backs Mr Key to the hilt, provided the knife is long enough; Mr Power remains the next leader but three; and the rest of them are not even famous in their own dreams.

The fact is that while at times National has looked as though it has learnt to be an opposition it shows no sign it has learnt how to be a government.

And with Slippery John in charge there is no sign it ever will.

But the future cannot be ours by default. We have to earn it. And we do that best of all by doing what National cannot – being clear about where we want to go and how to get there.

Our aim, quite simply, is to build a sustainable economy and society. One that does not rest upon the exploitation of the many by the few. One that cares for our environment and means that we leave real choices to our children and grand children.

One that provides fulfilling jobs for all who seek them and real support for those who cannot, that recognises the costs of raising a family, that honours and celebrates our differences, that sees education as a means of self fulfilment and the path to success, that brings together, not pushes apart, that rejects the view that to succeed you must climb over others to do so.

A New Zealand of security and opportunity whose place in the world is that of a self-confident nation grounded in its own identity but reaching out to others. A New Zealand which is great in its smallness, modest in its boldness, sharing in its uniqueness.

It is this complex of aspirations and values and ideals which has to guide our actions.

We know that high interest rates and rising food and petrol prices and the long housing boom have caused problems for many families and individuals. The answer is not to blame immigrants or demonise public servants or to bring back legalised assault on children.

It is to manage the economy sensibly so interest rates can fall. It is to develop intelligent interventions in the housing market to help first homeowners. It is to refresh the Working for Families programme as resources allow.

And it is to bring in a programme of staged personal tax cuts which is designed to give a dividend and a fair share to all, not just to those at the top end of the income scale.

But it is also to keep addressing those other costs that people bear: the cost of health and the cost of education which governments can directly affect.

We know that, like all developed economies, we rest upon a system of production which is unsustainable over the long term. That is why sustainability is at the heart of the Fast Forward fund for primary sector research and development.

That is why there is an absolute focus on renewable energy development, retrofitting existing houses, introducing biofuels. Most importantly, of course, we need to bring in a comprehensive emissions trading scheme that will put us on the path to meeting our Kyoto obligations.

At the same time, we have to clean up our rivers and lakes, manage our waste streams better, and walk the talk of clean and green.

We know that too many of our young people still fail to realise their full potential, disengage from school early and, in too many cases, end up in what is called the justice system.

The answer is not to try to pick on a few and throw the book at people who gave up reading a long time since. It is to change our secondary school system to one which is focussed on the individual learner so that all young people retain and develop a thirst for learning and achievement. That is what is at the heart of Schools Plus, not an attempt to dragoon the unwilling into more years of underachievement.

Schools Plus and a new integrated workplace skills strategy will link up with our other educational reforms to create a network of achievement to help build a knowledge nation.

We know that to build such a nation we must accelerate the provision and uptake of high speed broadband to the office, the factory, the farm, and the home.

We will need billions of dollars of additional investment to meet our ambitions in this respect. The great bulk of this will, and should, come from the private sector. But the Government can act intelligently to leverage that required level of investment and we will.

New Zealand cannot afford our plans for the future and our achievements to be put at risk by a National Party which gets into difficulty wherever it announces a policy, a National Party which has opposed every one of those major achievements but claims it won’t change them, a National Party whose slippery leader can’t get a firm grip on himself let alone the process of government.

Of course, once you’ve rejected the idea that honesty is the best policy it is hard then to have any others!

We have transformed this nation in the last eight and a half years. We are wealthier, more employed, better educated, and higher paid.

We have moved down the path towards a more sustainable economy. We have better working conditions, longer life expectancy, longer holidays, cheaper health care, reduced crime rates, sustainable superannuation, increasing work-based savings, and a stronger national identity.

To win this year’s election we have to do just one thing: to make sure the people understand the difference between Labour and National.

If we can do that then we can win. New Zealanders want a fairer society, they want fair shares whether by way of tax cuts or social services, they want full employment, they want a government they can trust to be firm in its principles and in its defence of our national interests at home and abroad.

That is what a Labour-led Government has, can, and will deliver.

We go out of this hall, which has resonated to Labour Party speeches for decades, renewed in our determination to campaign for the re-election of Helen Clark as Prime Minister of a Labour-led Government.

Three is good, four is better, not so much for us as for our country.


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